A podcast is an audio file that contains what you want to broadcast – think of it as a kind of personal radio programme – created in an MP3 format and uploaded to your website so that others, such as students, can download it onto an MP3 player and listen to it whenever they want.
Do you need to know your way around a computer? “Only a bit”, says Mike Marinetto, lecturer in public sector management at Cardiff University Business School, who used podcasting in his teaching last term. He taught himself how to do create podcasts in a weekend by using a tutorial available the internet and downloading free software.
He says it is worth consulting technicians at the university because some may know about special software and should be able to provide you with equipment such as microphones, or advise you where to get them.
Stephen O’Hear, a researcher in innovative ways of using digital technology to empower learners, says new software has made it much easier to make podcasts.
He says the new range of video MP3 players means that students who have access to them can receive video as well as audio broadcasts, which is worth bearing in mind when you are developing a programme.
Geraint Johnes, professor of economics at Lancaster University, was one of the first academics to start using podcasts for university teaching in the UK. He notes that students’ access to podcasts varies – not all have MP3 players and not all of them have high-speed internet connections – so you should make sure your podcasts are available on a website so that everyone can listen to them on university computers.
He says you also need to think about the teaching as well as technical aspects of podcasting. “When students have finished listening to the podcast they are going to listen to music,” he says. “You cannot rely on them thinking afterwards.” He says you have to make sure the podcast is integrated into the course – “otherwise, why should they bother going to class?”
Richard Hollingsworth, who was Johnes’s student last year, says the length of a podcast is crucial. “What works is if it's the length of a song,” he says.
Hollingsworth says it is also crucial to be clear, especially if you are dealing with difficult words and theories, and to use the podcast as a starting point. “It should be used in conjunction with a variety of other materials.”
Marinetto says that a podcast should contain new information as well as summaries of lectures, and that you should tell students to encourage them to listen to it. Links to other websites, information about relevant research and summaries of up-to-date articles can all sound fresher if delivered in a podcast, he says.
He advises treating a podcast like a radio broadcast rather than a lecture, although he warns that getting into this mindset will entail trial and error. He suggests listening to good radio programmes to pick up tips about how to put together a package. “Make it lively,” he says. This will mean being creative in how you put the podcast together, possibly using vox pops, music and bits of interviews from other radio programmes to break up the commentary. But beware of copyright issues.
Murray Weston, director of the British Universities Film and Video Council, says that, technically, podcasting falls out of regulations allowing educational establishments to use broadcast material for teaching because it is treated as an “on demand” service rather than a broadcast. How the rules relate to podcasts has not yet been clarified, so you may have to tread carefully. You may also need to get your university’s approval if you want to record your lectures, he says.
Richard Berry, a senior lecturer in radio at Sunderland University, says you need to think about how public you want to go. You could use a podcast within the university’s virtual learning environment, which would limit it to students who have access to it. Or you could make it available through a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) file, through which students would receive automatic downloads of your latest podcast. Or you could simply put it on a website or blog page so that it is available to all.
Berry warns that you should be particularly careful about using music. If you use commercial music you will need to pay a licence fee and that could get complicated and expensive. Otherwise, you need to investigate “podsafe” music, which can be used freely, or negotiate with up-and-coming musicians.
Finally, you need to think hard about your audience.
“The reason why podcasts are going to catch on in education is that students are much more savvy than we are,” says Berry. “Finding out what they want is the key.”